TORONTO — The clock is ticking, but CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie remains confident the league and its players can agree on a new contract in time for the start of training camp.
The present deal is set to expire May 18, with training camps scheduled to open the following day. The CFL and CFL Players’ Association will meet Monday and Tuesday in Toronto, their first face-to-face talks since April 9.
The two sides appear to have plenty of work to do as negotiations remain on non-monetary issues.
“We’re committed to getting a deal done with the players, one that’s fair and really one that sets us up for a bright future,” Ambrosie said Wednesday after the Canadian Football Hall of Fame unveiled its 2019 class at BMO Field. “I’m still very optimistic that a deal is going to get done and the players will start training camp on time.”
However, there will be some fences to mend. On April 10, the day after the last meeting. CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay told reporters the league had unilaterally decided to delay negotiations until next Monday, at the earliest, saying the union was informed the CFL had ”other priorities” to take care of before it could resume negotiations.
That struck a cord with CFL players, many of whom took to social media to express their dissatisfaction and frustration with the delay. The CFLPA has since recommended to its membership it refrain from reporting to camp without a new agreement and added it has no intention of working past May 18.
“I’m excited we’re getting talks started again,” Ambrosie said. “I’m going to encourage everyone on both sides to sit down in a positive, constructive way and find a way to establishing a foundation so we can grow and build the league.
“There’s two willing partners at the table and a lot of energy. I’m confident we can get it done.”
So is Jim Hopson, the former Saskatchewan Roughriders president who was named Wednesday for induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
“We should be (concerned about the state of CBA talks) but I think in the end it will work out as it always does,” Hopson said. “I’d really hate to see a work stoppage at the start of the year because the players don’t have the resources and it means the league stumbles coming out of the gate and I don’t know if you get that momentum back.
“We need to get rolling and I think we will.”
Jon Cornish, a former Calgary Stampeders running back named to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, said patience is always key in contract talks.
“You just have to stick it out,” he said. ”I think we’re sort of in a place now where there’s a party (the league) that hasn’t honoured its previous commitments.
“Both parties need to be acting in good faith … there’s always talk. Now, there’s a limited amount of time left but I think they’ll come to terms.”
Hopson brings a unique perspective to the subject of CBA talks. He was involved in the league’s first, and only, players’ strike in 1974 and 40 years later served on the CFL’s bargaining team when the two sides negotiated the existing agreement after the players voted in favour of a strike.
“I think he (Hopson) is right (on his opinion that the two sides will reach an agreement),” Ambrosie said. “Look, I have nothing but the greatest respect for our players.
“Negotiations aren’t easy, they are by their nature difficult. But I think we’re facing an opportunity to take this league to a whole new level of success and if we can accomplish that, the players can be great beneficiaries, as will the owners and ultimately our fans. I think there are many reasons to feel good about the future.”
Ambrosie has spent a lot of time this off-season implementing his plan — called CFL 2.0 — to grow the CFL internationally. He has secured partnerships with football federations in Italy, Mexico, Germany, Austria, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland in an effort to have Europeans playing professionally in Canada and also for USports players to have the chance to play overseas.
Another byproduct of the CFL 2.0 initiative is the potential for overseas television agreements that could provide additional revenue streams for the league.
“I love what Randy is doing,” Hopson said. “He’s saying, ‘We’ve got to grow the game, we need a bigger pie.’
“The challenge we have is the CFL is a tremendous league (with) so many good players and so much history. But the reality is our revenue base just isn’t what it needs to be to support a high level of compensation and benefits. We can’t just talk about how we’re going to split the pie … it needs to be equitable.”
Hopson said that means transparency by both sides.
“I like the idea of a true partnership where the players are truly involved,” Hopson said. “That means you’ve got to open up the books and show them and they need to understand and help you find ways to create more revenue and share more equitably.”
Ambrosie also weighed in on the Montreal Alouettes’ situation, reiterating that American businessman Robert Wetenhall — who has owned the club since 1997 — and his son Andrew, a team director and lead governor, continue to work with the CFL in trying to reverse the club’s fortunes. The Alouettes have missed the playoffs the past four years and attendance has reportedly dropped over 15 per cent since 2016.
Former Alouettes player Eric Lapointe has stated repeatedly he could gather a group of investors to purchase the franchise if contacted. Last month, Montreal businessman Clifford Starke publicly announced an intent to purchase the ailing club.
“I won’t speak specifically to any one discussion because it’s not appropriate,” Ambrosie said. “What I will say is I think this whole thing largely is driven by the Wetenhall family’s desire to re-energize the Alouettes … so far we’ve made a great deal of progress.
“The Wetenhalls have been very involved.”